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How to Throw a Kid’s Birthday Party in 2021

Until more adults and kids have been vaccinated, the best kids birthday party is still a pod or Zoom party. Here's how to make the most of it.

With news that the COVID vaccine may be made widely available to kids this fall, it’s reasonable to start daydreaming about an eventual return to the classic pre-pandemic kid’s birthday party, madhouse style, with frosting-streaked walls and screaming toddlers tearing through the house. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people have come up with some incredible alternative kids birthday party ideas, from car parades to Zoom dance parties (and you’ll find 20 more party ideas, below). With school back in session in many places, in-person parties are tempting. The novelty of a quarantine birthday has definitely worn off — but we are still very much living in the middle of a pandemic.

“In-person birthday parties that include people outside of your house are not a good idea at all right now,” says Dr. Susan Coffin, an epidemiologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The general public needs to understand it’s these exact events that cause outbreaks. They’re leading to asymptomatic infections among a group of people that then go back into their own bubbles. And because we all have like a couple of bubbles we move in and out of, all of a sudden you have 20 different bubbles and 50 different people, all infected from a single five-person birthday party.” Coffin emphasizes the necessity of a layered prevention strategy — rather than picking and choosing safety measures.

That means continuing to wear masks, gathering outside only, and even then keeping our distance — which isn’t a reasonable expectation for a big group of kids. While asking everyone to get tested beforehand might seem like a simple solution, Coffin cautions against it. “Testing can tell you one thing and one thing only, which is do you have the virus in your nose at the time the swab is in your nose. It tells you nothing about your likelihood of being infected or infectious in the next 12 to 24 hours.”

What about school pods? If a kid is already being exposed to a small group of children each day at school, and their respective families are theoretically also exposed, what’s the harm in getting together with those families after hours? “That only works to the extent that that contact is exclusive,” Coffin says. “If that truly is working as a bubble, then I can see the argument. But I can tell you about 15 stories I heard about this morning, of just such scenarios all leading to transmission and multiple people in two families getting infected.” 

The bottom line: In-person kids’ birthday parties are still a no-go. “There are no shortcuts here,” Coffin says. “The good news is, the safety of your event is completely under your control. You can make this 100 percent safe.”

There’s bound to come a time in the near future, when we feel nostalgic for all this simple family togetherness and the neat confines of the Zoom party, whose very limitations have produced such memorable, creative — and well-documented — kids birthday parties. Until then, here are 20 fun but structured party ideas for your kid’s next birthday, in 2021. 

Fun Ideas for a Zoom Kid’s Birthday Party

Zoom Party Games

All good parties need activities, and Zoom parties are no different. Plenty of classics can be adapted to Zoom and don’t require equipment. For a game of “scattergories” with older kids, for instance, each participant will need just paper and a pen; the host can send out the list of categories and then keep track of time, as participants try to write down as many answers as possible.

For a fun teamwork game, have the group close their eyes and try to collectively count to 20. The catch is that only one person can say each number, and if two people speak at the same time, the group has to start over. 

For younger kids who won’t want to sit still too long,  try charades. Have kids submit nouns over text, and then text back what they’ll be acting out. Kids can also go on a scavenger hunt within their house, racing to be the first one to return to the camera with random objects like an eraser, something fuzzy, or something edible. 

For more involved games, drop supplies off at each attendee’s house ahead of time. Kids can play minute-to-win-it games, racing to stack cups, move marshmallows from one cup to another using chopsticks, or competing to see how long they can balance objects on their head. 

Zoom Crafts 

Drop off simple craft kits before the party and have kids complete them together, virtually. Edible crafts are even better. Just drop off kits with plain cookies or cupcakes, plus an individual portion of icing and decorations like sprinkles. 

Fun Ideas for a Kids Pod Party at Home

Go on a Birthday Treasure Hunt 

Make your kid work for their gifts. They won’t be able to open presents in front of family and friends this year, but loved ones can still be involved.  Ask friends, family members, and neighbors if you can include their house on your route, and devise clues that will lead your kids to them. At each stop, kids can collect the next clue from the person’s mailbox or front stoop, wave to their loved one through the window, and collect a card or gift.

Create an Escape Room

Skip the trip to the mall and create an escape room in your own house with personalized, age appropriate clues. Don’t know where to start? Think of it like a scavenger hunt, but confined to one room. Bonus points if you play the mission impossible theme song. 

Human Piñata 

Not into blindfolded kids swinging bats around? Get their energy out in a slightly less violent way by having an adult tape candy all over their shirt and letting the kids chase them around. 

Birthday Flat Stanley

Ahead of your kid’s birthday, print out a full-body picture of them, cut out the background, and send copies to your friends and family. In lieu of celebrating in person, each recipient can take photos of them celebrating with this flat Stanley version of the birthday boy or girl. Collect the photos in a scrapbook, and show the birthday kid on their big day. 

Balloon Avalanche 

Once the birthday kid is asleep, close their door and loosely attach a plastic bag or a bunch of streamers to the door frame. Fill it up with balloons so that they fit snugly against the door. When the kid wakes up in the morning and open their door, they’ll be greeted with an avalanche of balloons. 

Fill Your Kid’s Room With Balloons While They Sleep

If you worry a little kid will be startled by a balloon avalanche, go for a more subtle surprise. Fill up a few dozen balloons with helium and release them into you kid’s room as they sleep. When they open their eyes in the morning, they’ll immediately be reminded it’s a special day.

Have Family Members Put Together a Video Montage

Since family members can’t gather at a birthday party, have them record personalized birthday messages and make a montage. There are apps that make this easy, like Tribute, but it doesn’t take much more than iMovie and some amateur editing skills to throw together a video on your own.

Wrap Each Item in Their Lunchbox 

If your kid is going to school on their birthday, pack their lunch accordingly and wrap each item in wrapping paper. 

Mystery Gifts

To make a game out of opening gifts, assign each one a number. Throughout the day, kids can pick a number out of hat or roll a die and then open the corresponding gift. 

Wrap the Gifts in Plastic Wrap

Another way to make opening gifts more fun is to encase them in a ball of plastic wrap. Unveiling them takes more time, which builds the suspense. You can also hide smaller gifts between layers, like individually wrapped pieces of candy, stickers, or dollar bills. 

Punch Piñata 

A more elaborate way of wrapping gifts, a punch piñata mimics the punching walls sometimes found on game shows. Just cut a few holes in cardboard, cover them in tissue paper, attach a paper bag to the back, and place a small gift inside. Kids will get a kick out of punching through the tissue to reveal their gift. 

Projector Movie 

Take movie night up a level by creating an at-home theater. Hang a sheet up on the side of the house and watch a movie by a bonfire,  or project a movie onto a wall in the house and snuggle up inside a pillow fort. Don’t forget the popcorn.

Tell Them Why They’re Special 

Birthdays are all about making the birthday person feel special, and families can do so explicitly by telling the birthday kid what they love about them. They can go around at dinner explaining what makes the birthday kid special, or decorate a poster listing things they love about them. Bonus points if you list the number of things that matches their age. 

Ice Cream Cone Smash 

This simple game combines two kid favorites — candy and being ridiculous. Collect some small-size candy and write down a few silly tasks on strips of paper: patting your head while rubbing your stomach, hopping on one foot for the next 10 minutes, trying to grab things while keeping your elbows pinned to your side like a  T-rex. Hide each of these items under a flat bottomed wafer ice cream cone and mix them up. Each person takes a turn smashing an ice cream cone to reveal what’s underneath. They either get to eat the candy or do the task. 

Ask Friends and Family to Send the Kid Letters. Mail Is Fun.

If Grandma’s the only one who still sends birthday cards, ask everyone else to consider doing so this year. The birthday kid will end up with a physical keepsake and a bunch of new pen pals. 

Camp in the Backyard 

For kids, the novelty of spending the night somewhere new doesn’t have to mean traveling far. Pitch a tent and spend a night in the great outdoors of your backyard. 

Lawn or Window Sign That Says “Honk for Birthday!”

Lawn signs are generally low-hanging fruit, especially for kids who can’t read yet. But if you get one that instructs passers-by to honk for the birthday boy or girl (you may want to warn your neighbors), you can tell your kid that every time they hear a honk that’s someone wishing them a happy birthday.